Dictionary launched to save endangered language

Christophe Landry at the University of Sussex has painstakingly edited around 5,500 entries for the online Dictionary of Louisiana Creole

The Gremillion family in Pointe-Coupée Parish, Louisiana, who recently appeared on the 'Genealogy Roadshow' programme on US TV. All of the people pictured are one family and all speak Louisiana Creole, not French.

A linguistic historian has helped to produce the first-ever online dictionary of Louisiana Creole to try to save the language from extinction.

Christophe Landry, a native Louisianan and a PhD student in American History at the University of Sussex in the UK, spent seven months of this year painstakingly editing the Dictionary of Louisiana Creole.

It is part of a growing trend of using technologies to try to preserve endangered languages.

The resource allows users to enter a word in English and immediately see its translation in Louisiana Creole (and vice versa), as well as examples of how it would be used. To date Christophe has edited more than 5,500 entries with more being added each day as Creole speakers around the world suggest new words to add.

Christophe says that the number of people speaking the language is very small – around 4,000, mostly from the older generation - and dwindling fast.

He says: “I have 34 first cousins and I’m the only one that’s really fluent in the language.

“Lots of young people are really quite afraid that this very important aspect of their culture will die along with the older people. So now there’s a vibrant movement, that really emerged out of Facebook, of young people who want to learn.”

Christophe teaches the language to many of these young people via groups in Facebook where learners have weekly audio-visual assignments to perfect pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical development.

The dictionary is an important next step in this renaissance as it gives learners free and open access to vocabulary development.

The dictionary is the brainchild of Californian businessman Rushton James, who called upon Christophe and his linguistic expertise for the huge task of editing the content.

Louisiana Creole is an indigenous language to Louisiana in southern USA. It has French and native American influences and is closely linked with Catholicism.

It is on an international list of endangered languages and there are very few resources in the language. One academic dictionary was published in 1998 but relatively few were printed and these were mostly bought by scholars.

Christophe explains:  “Right after World War One, with heightened nationalism in the US, English-only laws were passed in most States and non-English languages were forbidden at schools and in the public sphere. Because of its worldwide prestige, French was sort of tolerated, but Louisiana Creole was less tolerated – much less tolerated.

“So for about 100 or so years it’s really only been spoken, not written.

“This oral tradition makes it really difficult to come up with a writing system for it, particularly with demonstrative pronouns. So when you start talking about ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’, ‘those’, a lot of these things are just made in gestures in the language.

“And because technological terms are relatively new, we’ve also had to figure out how to convey those in the language because we simply don’t have words for them.”

Christophe was born in Louisiana and raised in his grandparents’ house. This unusually high level of contact with the older generation - his grandparents were also raised by their grandparents – meant that he was exposed to Louisiana Creole on a daily basis. For most other children his age, it was just the language their parents occasionally used to “speak secretively in front of the kids”.

He says: “I tagged along with them to go to neighbours and that was the language that was used. Until High School, I didn’t realise that I was participating in a linguistic difference.”

After studying towards a BA in Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana, Christophe worked with state and private agencies for the promotion, protection and expansion of his region's languages.

He arrived at Sussex in 2011 to work with Professor Richard Follett – a world-renowned expert in the history of the American South – on a PhD into the erosion of the community in Louisiana around the time of the decline of the sugar industry in the early 1900s, and the impact that had on language and identity.

He also teaches French in the Sussex Centre for Language Studies.

Louisiana Creole is one of 3,229 languages – representing around 40% of all languages in the world - listed in the Catalogue for Endangered Languages as being at risk of extinction. 

Notes for editors

University of Sussex press office contacts: James Hakner and Jacqui Bealing. Tel (+44)1273 678888 or email press@sussex.ac.uk

Audio-visual content can be found at:

Common phrases in Louisiana Creole:

  • Éy - Hey/Hello
  • Bonmatin - good morning
  • Komen ç’apé kouri? - How’s it going?
  • Ça iná? - What’s up? 
  • Mo linm twa. - I love you.
  • M’a wa twa pli tar. - See you later.
  • Mo pa konné. - I don’t know.
  • Ayou to sòr? - Where are you from?
  • Komen yé pèl twa? - What’s your name?
  • Mo pélé Jak. - My name is James. 
  • Mo las. - I’m tired.
  • Drèt lála - right now
  • Mèsi/mærsí - thank you

By: James Hakner
Last updated: Wednesday, 19 November 2014

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